This past summer, members of the Davidson campus community received an invitation from the Trustee Committee on Church-Relatedness to respond to a question about Davidson’s religious heritage, the values that define the college, and ways in which those values might be experienced. The form of the question differed somewhat for alumni, faculty and staff, current students, and their parents in order to best reflect each group’s particular affiliation with the college. The specific questions received by each group of prospective respondents are included in their respective sections.
As one would expect from the Davidson community, responses to the questions put forth by the Committee were thoughtful, articulate, and civil. Davidson was described in terms that reflect its highest standards and principles, even when respondents didn’t agree about their source. There was near universal agreement that, whatever the source, how values were realized at Davidson was deeper and more enduring than one might find on other campuses or within other organizations. Whether prompted by the Reformed Tradition or the college’s Presbyterian heritage, other religious affiliations, or the moral and ethical behaviors one might reasonably hope to find in all good people, the defining characteristic of Davidson, as expressed by most respondents, is its culture of honor.
Several themes emerged across all respondent groups. Even as individual respondents wrote about the effect that Davidson had on their personal endeavors, there was often an underlying awareness of community, in some form, and the effect individual choices have on others. That is, an engagement with Davidson has the potential to radiate beyond the campus and beyond the any one person’s affiliation with it.
There was also an awareness of how one’s personal experiences, beliefs, and actions might be perceived by others within or external to the Davidson community. At the same time, there was no indication that beliefs or actions were influenced by what others might think of them, nor was there evidence of an imperative to convince others that one’s particular beliefs or actions were the only way in which to lead a productive and principled life.
Finally, there is an underlying optimism that lives of leadership and service are not at odds with the world as a whole and are, in fact, consistent with Davidson’s place within it. Especially among alumni respondents, Davidson often provided an environment that nurtured an instinct already present and strengthened a resolve to live that life. For some, that resolve can be traced to the college’s heritage; for others, it is independent of it. For a small number, nurturing that resolve in future generations is threatened by a perception that the college’s heritage is in danger of being forgotten.
A brief description of themes by respondent group follows. Given the thoughtful and articulate writing referred to above, however, individual responses that best exemplify those themes have been given priority over summarization.
The Davidson community is accustomed to hearing or speaking about the ways in which the college’s religious heritage affects the life of the college. As the Trustee Committee on Church-Relatedness continues its work, which includes developing a better understanding of the values derived from that heritage, we would like to hear more about the variety of ways Davidson’s alumni have made connections between the college’s values and their post-Davidson lives. Are there two or three ways your experiences at Davidson have influenced your life, or the lives of others, that you can share with the committee?
Based on details contained within the responses, it appears to be a reasonable conclusion that they represent a wide swath of graduation years and life experiences since leaving the college. Certainly they represent a variety of opinions on the role of religion and Davidson’s historical relationship with the Presbyterian Church.
Among the respondents were Presbyterians who did not attribute the values instilled in them to the Presbyterian Church or the college’s relationship with it, and Presbyterians who considered such a connection obvious and worth protecting. There were respondents from religious traditions other than Christianity who attributed the same values to the tenets of those traditions as well as those who recognized a commonality across all faith traditions. There were respondents without religious beliefs of any kind who considered honor, service, and ethical actions to be simply reflective of the values one has been taught, and that while a religious tradition may provide an organizational context for some, it is far from a prerequisite for all.
Respondents referred to the “continuing influence” and “profound effect” on their lives of Davidson faculty and staff for whom religious faith was important and other faculty and staff whose religious beliefs were unknown but whose lives exemplified the same tenets of honesty, respect, and service.
One theme in the alumni responses was the way in which values learned or affirmed at Davidson—however derived—influenced both personal and professional aspects of one’s life. Alumni described the importance of a general commitment of service to others but also described the ways in which the “strong ethical base” Davidson had provided was reflected in the way one’s career was engaged. One respondent described a similar influence across multiple careers as well as on the various aspects of personal and family life.
Some respondents acknowledged a change during their student years regarding the increased importance placed on trust and integrity. Other respondents credited experiences after Davidson with a more profound and relevant effect on their lives than their experiences as students.
There were respondents who reframed the question in order to write about the particular issue that prompted the formation of the Trustee Committee. The language in which these opinions were delivered was almost always reasoned and courteous, and the opinions themselves intended to fortify the college for its place in a changing world. Respondents who advocated for continuing the requirement that the college’s president be an active member of the Presbyterian Church described an anchoring effect and a recognition of common values. Respondents who advocated for its removal noted a changing alumni base not reflected in the requirement, and that common values and ethical behavior need not be grounded in a religious tradition. For some, Davidson’s affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, as reflected in the requirement that the president be Presbyterian, is what sets it apart from other excellent liberal arts colleges. For others, the requirement is contrary to the open and welcoming environment that is Davidson at its most fundamental.
Still others chose to reframe the question in order to write about their Davidson experiences and its influence on their lives with no reference to its religious heritage. In some of those responses, a faculty member, administrator, or fellow student was the catalyst behind an insight that changed or strengthened the way the respondent perceived the world. In others, the influence was more general, “Davidson” as place and experience.
Faculty and Staff
As the Trustee Committee on Church Relatedness continues its work, we would like to hear more about the variety of ways the Davidson community makes connections between the college’s values and work at Davidson. Are there two or three ways those values influence you that you can share with the committee?
Honor and integrity, a balanced approach in both the classroom and laboratory, respect for others and for their ideas are hallmarks of Davidson for respondents among the faculty and staff. Davidson’s values are reflected in how professors teach and conduct their research, in how staff function, and in interactions across all constituencies. Words that appeared over and over in these responses were honesty, integrity, respect, truth, and service to others. One respondent spoke to the perception that the Davidson community is held to a higher ethical standard than seen on other campuses, and that this standard is reflected in professional activities, interactions among community members, and in the way one presents oneself to others.
In general, faculty and staff did not feel those aspects of Davidson were necessarily due to its relationship with the Presbyterian Church. More often they were described as independent of the college’s relationship with the church or at least not directly drawn from it, even if consistent with it. In fact, consistency is a recurring phrase in the faculty and staff responses. There is no sense that the college’s heritage insists on actions or beliefs that would not be part of the Davidson community regardless. There is evidence of a compatibility between personal beliefs and the values of that community.
At the same time, some respondents expressed concerns that there were implicit exclusionary policies that compromised the college’s ability to provide good examples for students. On a campus where the values on which all agree are lived daily, regardless of religious affiliation, an exclusionary practice with respect to one office, that of the president, is perceived as a contradiction not easily explained.
One respondent noted that the fact that Davidson has a connection to a religion frees him or her to bring theology or God into classroom discussions in a way that might not be possible to do on a secular campus. In general, respondents with religious convictions found a comfortable environment and those with none found an environment that does not consider honor and morality to be dependent on Christian beliefs.
Others, however, considered the college’s relationship with the Presbyterian Church critical when selecting a president even, as some respondents noted, the Board of Trustees is strengthened when comprised of individuals with a variety of beliefs. For those respondents, the office of the president is perceived as particularly reflective of the college’s heritage.
Most responses were framed positively. A handful were negative and almost equally associated with or against the college’s religious affiliation. In those cases, faculty or staff who believed the association with the Presbyterian Church was weakening also believed that expressions of faith had been stifled. Faculty or staff who perceived a disproportionate emphasis on religious affiliation took offense at the implication that service and dedication to Davidson values were at risk without it.
As a student at Davidson, you have probably heard, or been a participant in, discussions about the ways in which the college’s religious heritage affects the life of the college. As the Trustee Committee on Church-Relatedness continues its work, which includes developing a better understanding of the values derived from that heritage, we would like to hear more about the variety of ways Davidson’s students may have made connections between the college’s values and their lives. Are there two or three ways your experiences at Davidson have influenced your life, or the lives of others, that you can share with the committee?
A minority perception among students was that any disengagement from the Presbyterian church would dishonor Davidson’s Christian values because community and service to others is part of the Christian mission. Instead, most student responses clustered around a common theme. Davidson, according to these respondents, instills a higher work ethic and greater appreciation of service than other colleges but that neither is dependent on any religious tradition. The desire to embody Davidson values of honesty, integrity, and compassion is personal; it may reflect a student’s religious or secular background and its expression may be as varied as the students themselves. Those values, say most student respondents, have intrinsic worth.
Students noted the sense of community and an environment that encouraged personal growth. While some further noted a positive effect of the college’s association with the Presbyterian Church, they felt it could not, by itself, explain the uniqueness of Davidson.
Within the Davidson community, there are often discussions about the college’s religious heritage and the life of the college. As the Trustee Committee on Church-Relatedness continues its work, which includes developing a better understanding of the values derived from that heritage, we would like to hear more about the ways parents of Davidson students perceive those values and their effect on students’ experiences. Are there ways you see Davidson influencing the life of your son or daughter that you can share with the committee?
Many parent respondents spoke about the particular experiences of their son or daughter at Davidson, or the considerations—such as academic rigor, strong faculty, curriculum, and the honor code—they had deliberated when choosing a college. For the most part, families with religious traditions that were not Presbyterian or other forms of Christianity reported that their sons and daughters were comfortable with the atmosphere of openness and acceptance on campus.
At the same time, there were others among the parent respondents who described the college’s religious heritage as a critical component when deciding to include Davidson in their college search. Those responses were more often from the parents’ perspective rather than the assumed effect on their sons or daughters. That is, these were responses that often began with some form of “as a parent…” and spoke to a sense of security that their sons or daughters were enveloped in the college’s heritage.
As with all the respondent groups, parents had views on the college’s heritage that often differed widely. Some were concerned that the Christian values they believed underlay American society were being set aside in an attempt to endorse, encourage, or, in the words of one, condone diversity. Others were equally insistent on the need to move away from a strictly Christian definition of values and to recognize the place of those same values in faiths as diverse as Buddhism, Judaism, and African spirituality. Still others described a personal code of conduct not based in any religious tradition, a code that resonated with Davidson’s honor code and the importance placed on understanding and respecting others.
Regarding the ways in which parents see Davidson influencing the lives of their sons and daughters, there is strong agreement that the influence is positive and encouraging. Many described interactions with faculty, staff, and students as “genuine” “sincere,” and “welcoming;” others acknowledged the presence of the honor code and emphasis on service. In writing about Davidson’s influence, as they had when writing about the college generally, some parents made a direct connection with religious heritage. For others, again, the influence is based on an atmosphere that is tied to Davidson but not necessarily to its relationship with a particular church. For still others, the influence is embedded in Davidson values that are not attributed to religious heritage of any kind. Faculty and staff, and, especially, other students provided inspiration and concrete examples of dedication, purpose, and achievement for their sons and daughters.